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Make Mumbai a "fine" city

Aparisim Ghosh used to be a colleague of mine at BusinessWorld magazine. For a time he lived in Mumbai, commuting daily between Lokhandwala and Nariman Point before he decided that enough was enough and moved to Delhi. Later still he moved to Hong Kong to the Far Eastern Economic Review and then to Time magazine where he is associate editor.

When I met him some time ago I asked him what living in Hong Kong meant. His answer: Hong Kong is Mumbai without the commuting problems. Musing on his reply, I recently asked him how wide Hong Kong's roads were.

His reply was interesting. "Many of the key roads have two or more lanes (each way). I haven't seen any statistics on this, but I suspect that Hong Kong has no more road space than Mumbai. What makes the difference here (traffic jams are very rare) is that lane discipline is immaculate. For long stretches, lanes are divided only by painted lines, but drivers won't switch lanes until they arrive at designated lane-changing zones.These are marked by gaps in the painted (white) lines. If the line goes like this ______________ , it means you cannot change lanes. If it goes like this _ _ __ _ _ _ _ it means you can. Drivers are very disciplined, in no small part because the fines are very high. Traffic cops exist, but are not highly visible.

"Similarly, you can't stop a car/cab anywhere you like. If the edge of the road is marked with a double line of yellow (something like =============== ), it means you can't stop there. About 80% of the kerb-sides have these lines. So cab-hailing is limited to specific zones."

There is much that we can learn from this. A few issues back we spoke of autos crowding around the 331, 334 and 443 bus stops at Andheri. Since then a traffic policeman has been stationed there some of the time and the effect on traffic has been salutary. As we had argued earlier a traffic policeman's cost to the government is less than Rs 5,000 a month. So if he levies Rs 200 in fines a day that will more than meet the expense of stationing him there.

But we need to go far beyond this. Today auto drivers can look for a uniformed policeman and violate parking rules if there isn't one. If plainclothes policemen were placed there and authorised to levy a fine of, say, Rs 250 we would soon find no violators at all.

There is really no alternative to taking strict action against traffic offenders. Mumbai's roads are meant for the traffic of 50 years ago, and there is no way their width can be drastically increased. The only solution is to impose strict traffic rules and implement them religiously. Not doing this will land us in interminable traffic jams. A couple of months ago Reuters reported that a traffic policeman had arrested the daughter of Sam Walton (of Wal Mart fame) for drunken driving. She happens to be the second richest woman in the US, the richest being her mother. In India Rs 100 would have got her scot free.

For an example of brazen rule violation, come to the junction of Military Road and Marol-Maroshi Road where transporters park their vehicles right beside a no-parking sign. It's difficult to believe they would do this day after day without the connivance of the local RTO. Even when a traffic policeman is sent to the spot, trucks continue to be parked beside the no-parking sign just 20 feet away.